It is not the stadium alone responsible for the devastation of rock but it certainly focused these efforts. The minute we gather to formally celebrate resistance is the minute we formally kill it. There are not many artists who can withstand the arena’s devastation.
Somehow, though, Bruce Springsteen manages.
In any typical reading of the world, Springsteen would feel like a moment of dead nostalgia. He is still singing about a rust-belt, for goodness’ sake, outsourced some decades ago. Few of us who love him are old enough to have lost a manufacturing job or have ever seen a union card. Somehow or another, though, the man offers us not only an account of a world that still exists but the means by which to defy it.
I love him.
Of course, we can be certain Born to Run — a glorious album he played in its entirety last night in Melbourne — has lost some of its cultural power in the forty years since its release. When audiences first met Mary, they knew the sound of the screen door that signified the end to her reasonable dreams and they knew the feel and the hum of the car in the yard whose owner had never quite managed to fix to the degree he could drive her away from a town full of loss.
But when he concedes in Thunder Road, “All the redemption I can offer, girl/Is beneath this dirty hood”, he still makes a good deal of sense. Our disappointments may be different and our hands may no longer be dirty but we are still looking, along with Springsteen, for moments of redemption amid the broken rubbish of the everyday.
Of course, no one has a timeless, universal message; not even The Boss. But his critique has remained as lean and attractive as he has.
Springsteen — perhaps the only man alive who can wear a waistcoat without looking effete or like a parking attendant — is still helping us find redemption. In Born to Run (seriously, hearing this album end-to-end was such a treat; even if Tom Morello did drown out the memory of its subtler passages by turning the E-Street Band into Rage Against The Machine shortly after) he redeems us from the tragedy of ailing western industry. In 2012’s Wrecking Ball, he redeems us from the more confusing terms of a world that runs on debt instead of engines.
Being The Boss, Springsteen knows that power has become more diffuse. While Mary’s hopelessness is a relatively simple matter, and can be seen writhing on the floor of her town, the post-crash world sees our “best hopes and desires are scattered through the wind”. His waistcoat, his age and occasionally questionable choices in band members notwithstanding, he remains keenly and sublimely aware that the self is now under siege in a thousand different ways. And he can still sing beautifully about it. “They brought death to my home town” he explains; and he helps us to see, in using his familiar imagery of small places and big mosquitoes, how the weapons of death have changed across the decades.
This newer death is the subject of a talking-blues bit. Springsteen spends some minutes speaking well — and, as he has it, under the influence of drink — about watching the television past his bedtime as a kid. He tells us that there was a time “believe it or not” when the television went dark for an hour or two at night; a time when our best hopes and desires were not so scattered but when they actually went to bed at night and got some sleep. It’s not nostalgia but part of a forty year project of describing the man in an advancing technocratic landscape.
I love him so much. I don’t think there ever been a popular music artist who has built such loyalty from an ongoing account of the absence of hope under capitalism. And I don’t know of another man who can stand and give most of what he has to a stadium for three-and-a-half hours without sacrificing a feeling of intimacy.
It is not as though Bruce and I are alone in this arena; although that would have been nice. It is, however, as though he continues to be able to describe the only, and very intimate, escape-route from a world where the screens never go dark.
Bruce gives us late nights. He still gives us songs about solitude. He gives us moments of pleasure taken in the dignity of a self that exists on its own and flourishes in love.
Love — which can be of the sort known with Wendy in Born to Run or in the power of resistance or even in a stadium — is what it’s all about. “Together we can break this trap”. Together, we will walk in a world of screens we are still able to turn off. Tramps like us, baby we were born to love and endure the marathon ride of a man who is still over-full of despair and love in equal measure.
You should have been there.